Daniela Fernandez was frustrated with older leaders focusing on the dire threats of climate change without developing solutions. So at just 19 years old, Fernandez founded Sustainable Ocean Alliance in an effort to unite young people and climate entrepreneurs to preserve the planet’s seas. Through SOA, Fernandez is helping startups scale to market and put innovation to work to protect the environment. Her advice for young people passionate about climate change: Roll up your sleeves and take matters into your own hands.
“We can’t simply be angry at this moment. We truly have to be doers. Because the reality of our situation is that, yes, we’re upset. Yes, we are fearful of what’s happening to our planet. But simply pointing the finger at governments and corporations and demanding more isn’t going to cut it anymore. We need civil society to do their part. You need to ask yourself, ‘How can you contribute.’”
Daniela Fernandez’s climate entrepreneurship story began after she attended a United Nations meeting when she was just 19 years old.
“I realized that every single spokesperson in that room — whether it was a CEO, a scientist, a head of state — they talked about the gravity of the problem, they gave us all the statistics, they gave us all the other dire situations that were going to take place,” Fernandez said. “But no one talked about solutions.”
Fernandez, who was a college student at Georgetown University at the time, left feeling disillusioned and decided to launch her own solutions-oriented initiative in 2014: Sustainable Ocean Alliance. SOA supports startups and nonprofits that aim to preserve the world’s oceans, with a focus on uniting young people.
SOA has given out 222 microgrants and supported 45 startups to date, backing ideas ranging from kelp burgers to harnessing wave energy. The organization is now turning its attention to building out its “ecopreneur” network in order to support more innovators trying to protect the ocean.
Fernandez called on the public sector to match the urgency of climate innovators that SOA supports.
“What we’re doing at Sustainable Ocean Alliance is investing in people and solutions that are practically building a better future for us now. And we’re also looking at can we make saving our planet profitable? How can we make it scalable?” Fernandez said.
“Acting with urgency, also investing more in talent, investing in innovation and entrepreneurship, it’s what we don’t see enough of — especially from the government,” she added.
Scientists have warned that if the planet’s temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the Earth could face irreversible threats. Referencing the 1.5 Celsius benchmark, Fernandez said policymakers “need to be more open-minded and take bigger risks.”
“The fear that we should all have is that the world that we will inherit, if we reach that 1.5 degrees Celsius or pass it, is not going to be livable for any of us,” Fernandez said. “The reality is that we need to reengineer businesses, and we need to reengineer economies so we can serve our planet while also supporting our livelihoods.”
Fernandez welcomed the shift in the White House from the climate-skeptical Trump administration to President Joe Biden, whom she credited with a “heroic effort” in passing climate change provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act.
Nevertheless, Fernandez believes Biden could be doing more by declaring a climate emergency.
“We still need the Biden administration to put forth a bigger ambition and a leadership statement by saying, as the U.S., we are changing our economic infrastructure,” Fernandez said. “But we also need to change the way that we’re signaling the world, that we are recognizing that we are in a climate emergency, that we need more funding in this space. And then we need every single sector to start moving in that direction.”
While Fernandez recognizes the hurdles of combating the climate crisis, she advises other young people passionate about environmentalism not to get discouraged.
“We can’t simply be angry at this moment. We truly have to be doers,” Fernandez said. “Because the reality of our situation is that, yes, we’re upset. Yes, we are fearful of what’s happening to our planet. But simply pointing the finger at governments and corporations and demanding more isn’t going to cut it anymore. We need civil society to do their part. You need to ask yourself, ‘How can you contribute.’”
Fernandez says young Americans should “take matters into [their] own hands. And that’s what I did. I was 19 when I started my organization.” Young people can build grassroots projects, run for office or start a climate-focused business, Fernandez said.
One critical issue, Fernandez said, is supporting these solutions and ensuring there’s enough capital to help “ecopreneurs get to market at a much faster rate.” This effort is at the heart of SOA’s future focus.
“Over the past 100 years, we’ve invested a lot of our capital into businesses that have been destroying our planet,” Fernandez said. “How can we change the capital and redistribute it in a way where we can provide that financing to these corporations and businesses that are doing good for the planet?”
Fernandez maintains she’s optimistic about the planet’s future.
“Every day, I wake up feeling happy and hopeful about our world because I see the solutions. I hear about wave energy being developed, I hear about alternatives to plastic being created. I see companies that are building solutions to map out the ocean floor to understand it better. So there’s so much ingenuity out there,” she said.
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